Johnny Dumfries 1958–2021

Johnny Dumfries (John Colum Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquess of Bute), Honorary member of the Guild of Motoring Writers (Photo: Jeff Bloxham)

His biggest success came in the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours, when he shared the winning Jaguar with Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace – the Coventry marque’s first outright victory in the event since 1957.

Two years earlier there had been a single season as a grand prix driver, alongside Ayrton Senna at Lotus team-mate. Such are the facts the wider world knows about the career of Johnny Dumfries, who has died at the age of 62, but such simple statistics do him a disservice.

Johnny Dumfries’s ascent to the motor racing summit owed nothing to his aristocratic background, something he kept well hidden when he was racing in the cut and thrust of Formula Ford during the early 1980s. It was the result of hard graft – working as van driver, painter & decorator, among other things – and natural competitive flair.

By 1983 he had shown sufficient promise to graduate to the British F3 Championship, running a one-year-old Ralt on a shoestring budget with the small AMR team. He obtained a number of strong results, though he failed to finish on the day that really raised his profile.

At Silverstone in June, there was a race counting towards both the British and European championships. Dumfries qualified third, behind UK title protagonists Martin Brundle and Ayrton Senna, and made a better start than the Brazilian to run second initially. His hopes of a podium result detonated along with his engine, but a marker had been laid.

That winter, BP recruited him to drive for its F3 team in 1984 and, at the wheel of a Ralt run by David Price, Dumfries won 10 of the 17 races to emerge as runaway champion. And even though he missed a couple of races due to date clashes, he also finished second in the European series, only a few points behind winner Ivan Capelli.

Despite this stellar campaign, a shortage of sponsorship compromised his chances of graduating to the FIA F3000 Championship, grand prix racing’s unofficial finishing school. He found support to do the first five races in an Onyx March, finishing sixth at Vallelunga, and later did a couple of events in an uncompetitive Lola, but it was a frustrating campaign.

Even so, he was offered an F1 chance with Lotus the following season. Derek Warwick was expected to get the drive, but team leader Ayrton Senna didn’t want an experienced F1 driver in the second car and Dumfries seized the opportunity that came his way.

His season was hindered by unreliability – and his clear role as the team’s number two – but he managed a couple of points finishes, though by then he already knew he would not be staying beyond the season’s end. Lotus had done an engine deal with Honda, whose preferred driver Satoru Nakajima came as part of the package.

With no fresh F1 opportunities available, Dumfries switched to endurance racing – and shared second place with Mauro Baldi in the Brands Hatch 1000 Kms, the duo’s Porsche 962 splitting the Tom Walkinshaw-run works Jaguars. Afterwards, Walkinshaw suggested Dumfries should give him a call – and that led to the offer of a full-time drive, the highlight of which would be that Le Mans victory in June 1988.

Later that year, however, a mistake on the opening lap at the Nürburgring persuaded Walkinshaw not to retain his fellow Scot the following season. Dumfries switched to Toyota’s sports car programme for the next two years, but with no deal on the table for 1991 he decided to hang up his helmet and start a fresh life helping to manage the family estate.

He wouldn’t race again.

I’ll remember him as a grounded and friendly, someone whose background I would never have guessed as we sat chatting over egg and chips in the ramshackle café that once sat to the outside of Silverstone’s Woodcote Corner. He won’t ever be listed as one of the all-time greats, but his 1984 season underlined significant potential that would remain ever unfulfilled.

He was a good bloke, taken far too soon.

Simon Arron